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Travelogue – Belize

The only English speaking nation in Central and South America, Belize was known as British Honduras from 1862 to 1973 but in anticipation of independence became Belize, named after the countries biggest city. Independence took until 1981 mostly due to neighbours Guatemala’s asserted claims to Belize.

Post 1981 Britain retained a military presence in Belize until only four years ago when the last of the British forces left the colony.

Archaeologists estimate that at their peak, 1 to 2 million Mayans lived within the borders of present day Belize. Christopher Columbus sailed along the coast of Central America in 1502, and named the area the Bay of Honduras but Columbus never stayed and the first settlers were English Puritans, setting up trading posts along the coast.

Ship-wrecked sailors, buccaneers, and pirates came and went and the Spanish continually attempted to expel the British buccaneers but finally signed treaties in 1763 and 1786 allowing the British to continue to harvest timber in exchange for protection against pirates preying on the Spanish galleons.

imageToday Belize is a melting pot of cultures and influences. The population of 357,000 only has around 35,000 people of Mayan descent, with concentrations in different parts of the country including where we stayed in the Caya district. The largest group are the Mestizos, mostly concentrated in the north and west of Belize with a mixed European and Mayan heritage.

Creole’s, once the majority, now make up around a quarter of the population although the Creole language is still widely spoken. Large populations of Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) a race of mixed African, Caribbean and Indian can be found in a couple of different towns, but only number about 1 in 20 of the population. Then there is a good smattering of Taiwanese and Chinese, mostly from Hong Kong as well as a good number of expats including Brits, Americans and Canadians, a lot of whom appear to have jumped on the tourist boom and own many of the hotels and restaurants. One thing that surprised me was the median age of a Belizean is just 22. Less surprising is the large amount of Chinese investment there is, some obvious, some not.

imageWe landed at the only international airport in Ladyville, 9 miles north of Belize City. No European carriers fly direct and only Delta and American fly directly from the States, but I did notice airplanes travelling to Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Belize City contrary to popular belief is not the capital city, that is Belmopan. After Hurricane Hattie in 1961 devastated the coast of Belize including Belize City, the capital was moved to Belmopan in 1970, the consequence being the new capital is a dreary scatter of concrete government buildings and corporate headquarters. Proving that capital cities are best when born and not conceived.

Belmopan is growing though and all around the capital there is much to see archeologically and agriculturally. Andy & Simone Hunt’s eco-lodge is also close to here.

imageBelize City is pretty small, more of a town than a city, and nothing I read left me with any desire to visit it. Crime ridden, gang infested with little according to guides of any interest to see. Our driver skirted around it from the airport as he headed in land towards The Caya and San Ignacio.

The mountainous Cayo area inland and close to the Guatemala border first started as a tourist area in the 1980’s and it has been thoughtfully developed with visitors lured by a rugged countryside, colourful wildlife, Mayan discoveries and it’s cave system.

Nearly two thirds of The Cayo is designated national park and forest reserves. Eco hotels and jungle lodges are a plenty for every budget. We stayed just a few miles from the border at Ka’ana. The hotel only had 17 rooms. There was a small pool, a bar plus a restaurant, which had a beautiful torch lit terrace.

imageThe Ka’ana (left) would have been difficult to spend whole days at, I think it’s sole purpose is to allow some nice home comforts at night, whilst you adventure outside during the day. They did offer a range of activities and excursions, although other hotels and specialized tour companies offered a more varied choice.

I wasn’t sure about the hotel, although the staff were very friendly and the manager resolved without any fuss the fact that we’d apparently booked two villas. One for us and one for our 5-year old daughter. She’s pretty grown up but not quite ready for her own villa.

The restaurant was a little frustrating because I felt it could have offered so much more in terms of choices. Within the grounds was the hotel’s own vegetable and herb garden, yet the menu never seemed to take advantage of that, and although the food was good, the menu was very limited without daily specials. In fact even knowing that my other half was vegetarian it took them until the last night to tell us that they had a separate vegetarian menu. Very odd.

imageWhile it is hard to pin down any truly distinctive Belizean cuisine, what we found was a mix of Caribbean, Mexican, African, Spanish, and Mayan culinary influences with a reliance on rice and beans cooked using coconut milk. Hot sauce accompanies every dish as well. What we didn’t try and I can’t say I was disappointed was Belizean specialities iguana, sea turtle and gibnut, also known as paca, which is a large rodent. Taste’s like chicken we were told. Yeh, whatever!

I did enjoy the local brews though, albeit that the choice is limited. The Belize Brewing Company has a monopoly on beer in the country. Their Belikin brand (Mayan for road to the east) was everywhere and came in several varieties including a pale lager, premium lager and a stout as well as a beer called Lighthouse, which I quite liked. The only other beers I saw were a couple of Caribbean imports.

imageOur hotel was 10 minutes from the bustling town of San Ignacio. The Hawksworth suspension bridge welcomes you to the town, built in 1949 it was brought piecemeal from Middlesbrough. The bridge crosses the Mopan River with San Ignacio on one side and it’s sister town Santa Elena on the other. San Ignacio’s colonial streets are an eclectic mix of funky and dilapidated and on a Saturday there is a large market.

It is worth exploring to get a taste of a Belizean life, and at it’s centre is the local football stadium, home to San Ignacio United of the Belizean 1st Division, one below the countries Premier League.

For the four full days we were in Belize we did an excursion everyone of them. Organized by our hotel on our first day we were driven a short distance to Hanna Stables, and the three of us horse rode along the Mopan River. The low gurgle of its rapids was a peaceful backdrop that took us past mahogany trees, vividly coloured birds, howling monkeys and women doing their washing on the river’s edge.

imageWe reached a hand pulled ferry that crossed the river to Xanantunich, a Mayan village that dates from 200 to 900 AD. Xanantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-too-nitch) sits atop a hillside. We left the horses in shade and climbed the hilltop to the six different Mayan plazas.

El Castillo is Xanantunich’s largest structure, pyramid shaped and the second highest point in Belize with an incredible panorama. On one side was a reproduction of a frieze with Mayan faces with Jaguars and other animals. Behind it is the the original artwork first discovered by a Cambridge University expedition in 1960.

On the way back we stopped at a beautiful spot on the Mopan River and ate an elaborate packed lunch brought to us by the hotel. Afterwards we paddled in the translucent shallow river as fish moved around us. It was an enduring day.

imageOn day two we took to the water and booked a trip on the Macal River, which runs through the Cayo District. The Macal River has been the centre of a lot of angst amongst Belizeans after the construction of the Chalillo Dam (below) 10 years ago which has said to have caused much damage to the surrounding rain forest. Many accounts and reports explain that the creation of the dam has added pollution and reduced wildlife, especially the beautiful scarlet macaw.

Nonetheless we didn’t find all this out until later so that morning we were picked up early by car and taken to meet a family who were organizing the tour. We gathered at their large house situated in the middle of a howler monkey populated forest right on the edge of the Upper Macal River.

imageEvery member of the family had a role with the Uncle driving the pontoon and the daughter our guide. Firstly the pontoon took us close to the disputed dam, after which our captain slowly meandered his way through thick forests along a picturesque route to the first of three waterfalls we were to moor up at. On the way we took it turns to be pulled by rubber rings, being told once to jump back on the boat as alligators were spotted, which was a little bit disconcerting!

The first waterfall stop was at the heavenly Rio Frio, where a 60ft high powerful shower of water falls into a beautiful shallow swimming hole. We took it turns to hide under a little shelf whilst the water tumbled at great speed around us.

Next was the twin waterfalls of the Rio On. Fantastic to look at but our guide insisted that we climb around them to discover what lay at the top. The climb was a little bit hairy but what awaited was another fresh water oasis to swim and run amok in. Our daughter loved it as we played 70ft up above the Lake where we’d left the pontoon.

imageLast was an unnamed waterfall, I think, which was so slippery that I gave up trying to get inside where many different layers of waters cascaded gently downwards. The high levels of calcium deposits crystallize fallen leaves and twigs along with plants that grow in the path of the constant water falling making it like an ice rink.

It was a perfect day and rare that I ever do anything so relaxing and our daughter loved being pulled along in the warm waters actually spending more time in the rubber ring than the pontoon.

The third day we chose a trip to Guatemala and Tikal, which is widely recognized as one of the most impressive of all Mayan sites sharing a top three spot with Machu Picchu and Angkot Wat. I will write separately on our visit to Guatemala.

Our final full day excursion was to Belize Zoo. Now we had read a fair bit about this zoo, which until then wouldn’t maybe have been on our to do list. But it was apparent that this was no ordinary zoo, and founder Sharon Matola kept the 29 acre site more like a reserve with every inhabitant a rescue animal indigenous to Belize. The zoo contains 170 animals, representing over 45 species, all native to Belize. The zoo keeps animals which were orphaned, rescued, born at the zoo, rehabilitated, or sent to the Belize Zoo as donations from other zoological institutions and welcomes 15,000 schoolchildren each year plus 50,000 other visitors.

imageWe plumped for the Director’s Tour so we could meet Sharon Matola personally. An American originally from Baltimore, she came to Belize in 1982 when filming a BBC wildlife documentary. She never left and with a collection of wild animals to look after that were used in the making of the documentary, Sharon opened Belize Zoo in 1983.

Sharon was an incredible person and we spent way more than our allotted time with her as she gave us a real insight into Belize’s wildlife and conservation challenges and achievements. We also found out that Sharon was one of Chalillo Dam’s staunchest opponents. Whilst with Sharon we held, fed, played, stroked and kissed macaws, toucans, howler monkeys, harpy eagles and a very long boa constrictor. My daughter still talks about being kissed by a jaguar (true) although my personal favourite was feeding the tapir. There was no kissing however.

imageBelize Zoo was about a 90 minute drive from our hotel on the way to Belize City and we had a wonderfully educational experience. There was a very decent canteen on site as well as a shop and if zoo’s are not your thing, then this is the zoo for you.

We only caught a glimpse of this country that has two widely different parts to explore. Belize is a country of incredible natural beauty with a mixture of cultures. The Caribbean coast with it’s mint green sea and the longest barrier reef in both the western and northern hemispheres with the iconic blue hole, crying out to be dived into.

Then there is the interior, that we visited, chocked full of chartreuse green forests, ancient ruins and a highway of caves. Massive Ceiba trees home hundreds of different birds and then there are the rain forests where jaguars still roam free. Belize is called a jewel. Locals call it a jewel and visitors remember it as a jewel. Belize does sparkles very brightly.

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